Part of a larger piece in which two guys recall an event from childhood, then an accident.
|Ben sat the beer on the bar and wiped his mouth with the paper napkin that had been laid there to set the bottle on; the bartender, a tired-looking man in his 60s, looked up, frowned, and went back to stacking brown bottles into an ancient and clattering top-load cooler behind the bar.
“Charlie,” Ben said, looking around nervously, half expecting a dark-suited CIA operative to be behind him, talking into his sleeve. “Charlie, I seen something. I seen something I wasn’t supposed to.” Ben had grown up in Boston and despite many years away from the Northeast, he’d never been able to shake his breathy vowels and his rhotic r’s. His Charlie was Chah-lee; his supposed to was supporsed tah. But Charlie understood him well enough; he was from the Northeast himself.
A million years ago, Charlie had been a smart, tough little street hood until a juvie conviction and a tough-love probation officer had set him straight. After that was a hitch in the Marine Corps and then thirty years matching wits with the worst gangbangers that Beantown could vomit up as part of the city’s so-called War on Gangs. It made a nice campaign slogan for a three-term mayor seeking a fourth, but it was a war the city couldn't win, and Charlie had been a casualty in that war. A bullet in his back fired by a fourteen-year-old thug trying to impress his sixteen-year-old brother the way Charlie had killed a sparrow with his BB gun to impress his own brought his service to the fine citizens of New York to an end—now he was retired, with about sixteen too many hours on his hands day after day.
“So whaddya see, Benny?” Charlie responded. “Drug deal? Stick up? What?”
“No, nuttin’ like that, Chah-lee,” he said, again glancing around. He clutched the napkin in his hand, and just as Charlie noticed the beads of sweat collecting on his upper lip, Ben wiped his mouth again.
“Jesus Christ, Benny,” Charlie laughed. “You look like you’re having a heart attack. Drink your beer.” Charlie stood up and struggled out of his overcoat, which he then draped over his stool in the way he had done in his youth. He sat back down and picked up the glass of scotch the man had poured for him. He swung it around to activate the aromas; Charlie fancied himself quite the scotch aficionado, when the truth was that he couldn’t tell his Speyside from his Islay. But it made good conversation with the women at the bar, when there was one, and when he could catch her eye. Charlie took a swig of the brown liquid. “You ought to be drinking this,” he said.
“Hell, I’m afraid to, Charlie,” Ben said. “I gotta be able to open it myself, see? Make sure it ain’t got no dope put in it.”
“Oh, my God,” Charlie smiled again and looked down into his glass. “So, you gonna tell me or what?”
“Yeah, yeah, Charlie, I’m gonna tell you.” Ben had that look on his face that Charlie knew meant he was screwing up his courage to do something. He’d seen that before over the years as they grew up together. Once, as boys, they climbed to the top diving platform at the South Beach diving pool, intending to jump off together. “Yeah, that’d be great!” Benny had said, but that had been when he was on the ground. He’d climbed up the ladder ahead of Charlie, glancing back from time to time to make sure Charlie was behind him. Up on top, Benny got that look on his face. “Uh, Charlie, it’s a long way down,” he said, unable to let go of the railing along the sides of the platform.
“Well, sure it is, whaddya think?” Charlie said. He walked out and dangled his toes off the edge. “Come on,” he said, looking back at Benny’s shaking frame. “Well, come on already, ya baby. I’m getting cold up here.”
Without another word, Ben marched out and jumped off the platform stiffly; Charlie followed, and they both smacked the water hard and went deep. Charlie was up first; he snapped his head, flinging the water and wet hair off of his face, and looked around. No Ben. He turned around in the water, looking here and there. No Ben. “Hey, Benny, where are ya?” he said weakly, treading water hard to keep his head up. Then he flipped over to his stomach, swam over to the edge of the pool, and hefted himself up. He scanned the water, but he didn’t see Ben. “Ben!” he yelled.
“Yeah, what do ya want?” Ben’s voice called from the shallow end of the pool. He had evidently swam underwater for some distance before he surfaced.
That had been a long time ago, but tonight, Ben had that look again. “So, tell me already,” Charlie said, upending his glass.
“Okay, okay,” Ben said, continuing to look around “You remember Lucy Lennes?”
“Lucy Lennes?” Charlie said, astonished. “Sure I do. Juicy Lucy. But what has she got to do with anything?”
“Remember Lucy’s house?” Ben said.
“Sure,” Charlie responded. “My side of the street, four houses down. When Lucy died and her family moved away, that house sat vacant for a couple of years, and then they tore it down and built a different house on that same lot.”
“Yeah. Well, before Lucy died, when we all lived there, ah—” Ben looked around again and leaned in towards Charlie. “Something happened, Charlie. I had forgotten about it until—”
“All right, already,” Charlie said, softening his voice. “What happened?”
“Okay,” Ben took a drink of his beer and swallowed hard. “I was over at Lucy’s house, and there was this guy, a man. An adult. I never saw him before, see? He was sitting in a chair on Lucy’s porch, and Lucy was standing in her yard.”
“When was this, exactly?”
“Ah, I was ten. Lucy was nine, and you would have been twelve.”
“So, about 1970.”
“Yeah. 1970,” Ben repeated. “So, I walk up and say ‘Hey, Lucy,’ and she says hello, and I notice the guy on the porch, and I say ‘Who’s that?’ And Lucy says that he’s a friend of her dad’s.”
“Okay,” Charlie said.
“So, I walked up to the porch and I noticed this guy’s clothing, because he was dressed weird. Pants made from metallic thread or wire of some kind, knitted together like chain mail, gray-looking. The shoes were woven into the pants, like footies on pajamas. He was wearing a shirt that had horizontal panels, puffed up, sort of. One sleeve was long and one was short, I remember that.” Ben said.
“Who was he?” Charlie asked.
“Okay, so Lucy said something to him that I didn’t understand. I thought I hadn’t heard her clearly, and that that was why I didn’t understand her. But it wasn’t that. Now I know what it was.”
“What was it?”
“They—” Ben swiveled his head around again right and then left, and suddenly grasped his beer glass and napkin. “Come with me!” he said, standing and striding quickly towards the door. He placed his beer glass on an adjoining table near the front as he passed by and was out of the door before Charlie could respond.
“Hey, hey, where are you—” There was no point calling after him—he was gone. Charlie got up and wrestled on his long coat. He searched around in the pocket for a moment, found a fiver, and placed it on the counter. As he turned, he noticed two patrons in a booth along the wall looking at him carefully, following him with their eyes as he worked his way toward the door, and then he stepped out into the brisk night air. Once out, Charlie looked one way and then the other, and didn’t see Ben in either direction. He shrugged, turned to his left, and started walking down the street.
He walked for a while, but the cold bothered his back, down low on the left, where that fourteen-year-old thug’s bullet had gone in, and when it became intolerable, he stepped into the next doorway to warm up and rest a bit. It was another bar; there were plenty of them up and down Beacon Street, and Charlie knew most of them. He stepped in the door and moved straight to the bar, where an athletic-looking woman, not young, but attractive, held a telephone handset against her ear with her shoulder while she moved her hands under the bar. She mouthed 'hello, Charlie' to him and waved him over.
“Okay, okay, Sal, let me call you later, honey,” she said into the phone. “Okay, okay, Sal. Yeah.” Sal was apparently a little hard to get off the phone. “Yes, Sal, all right then. Yes, tomorrow. Okay.” She put the phone down just as Charlie was sitting down on the stool. “Charlie!” she said. “What the hell are you doing out here on a night like this?”
“Hello, Bev,” Charlie said. “Oh, I’m just—” Charlie started, and then he heard a siren outside. It was close—close enough to attract the interest of the patrons in the bar.
“What do you suppose that is?” Bev said, peering around Charlie. The door to the bar swung closed after Charlie passed through it, but there was a window in the door, and through it, the steady beat of a police lights, blue, blue, and then red, could be seen. Two men had been playing pool at the table near the door; they both stood with their sticks in their hands, looking at the door, and then one of them went to it and opened it.
“Pauly, can you see anything?” Bev asked.
“Two BPD cars and an ambulance,” he said. “Something’s happened just down the street, right around Sullivan’s place.” And then the man stepped off in the direction of the police lights, and was gone.
“Hey, Pauly,” his pool opponent said. “Hey, hey!” He too moved through the open door and was gone.
Several other patrons were leaving too, and as they did, Bev frowned. “Hey, you bums come back here and pay your tabs!” she said.
“Oh, hush, Bev, we’ll be right back,” one of them said as he passed through the open door. Then the pool player stuck his head back through the open door. “Charlie, you better come quick, it’s Ben.”
“Ben?” Charlie said.
“Yeah, Ben!” the man said, motioning. “Come on!”
Charlie got off the stool; he was still wearing his overcoat, and it swirled around his body as he moved out into the street. He hurried along to where the police lights flashed among the many people standing around where the paramedics were loading a body onto a gurney. He pushed his way to the front. It wasn’t hard, the people seemed to know who he was and they parted for him. As he approached, he saw that it was Ben all right, on the gurney, face up, covered to the neck with a sheet, and straps over that held him down. Charlie moved up so he could see Ben clearly and talk to him.
“Ben! Benny, what’s the matter with you?” he asked. Ben had a thin plastic mask covering his nose and mouth; he appeared to be breathing, but his eyes remained closed and there was no response. “What’s the matter with him?” Charlie asked the young man who was strapping the oxygen bottle that fed the mask to the side of the gurney.
“Not sure,” he responded. “You know him?”
“Sure I do,” Charlie said. “It’s Benny,” Charlie said. Now there was another young man next to the gurney, and the two of them whisked it away and put it in the back of the ambulance; Charlie followed. “Now, wait a minute,” he said, “I’ll—” Charlie didn’t know what to do. “I’ll ride along with you.”
“We can’t let you do that, sir. Don’t worry, now, we’ll take good care of him.” The paramedics had Ben in the ambulance now, and Charlie was left standing, confused, in the street with the other people, as they got into the truck, started it up, and drove off, siren blazing. Charlie watched it as it weaved its way down the street, turned a corner, and was gone. The bystanders started to wander off, back to their own lives and concerns, and then Charlie noticed a single figure, standing in the cold without a coat on. That was the first thing Charlie noticed about him.
The second thing Charlie noticed was the odd shirt the man was wearing.
It had one short sleeve and one long sleeve.